Trees of the Quantocks

Published by Jem Gibson on

Ancient and Veteran trees can be found all across the country, and the Quantock Hills are no exception. The Quantock Landscape Partnership Scheme, with our brilliant volunteers, have been searching the hills looking for the most notably old and interesting trees of the Quantocks.

Ancient Tree Survey at Cothelstone Park. Photo from Peter Williams.

So far, we have surveyed at two of the Quantocks most spectacular Parklands. Alfoxton Park in Holford, and Cothelstone Park at the foothills of Cothelstone Hill. You can download the Cothelstone tree survey results to find out about some of the trees we found!

The purpose of these surveys was to document these historically and ecologically important trees, with the aim of preserving them for the future.

When you go looking for ancient trees, it is not just the tallest or widest trees that are the oldest and most interesting. You need to look for other important features that may indicate the tree is older than it first appears.

The photo below shows two trees in Cothelstone Park that were planted next to each other. The tree on the left is 5.8 meters wide, indicating it could be up to 600 years old and classed as an ancient tree. The tree on the right is only 4.3 meters wide, which would imply it is much younger than the other, and not yet classed as ‘Ancient’. However, the hollowing trunk and large hole in the base indicate it is much older. Sometimes the girth measurement cannot indicate the age of the tree. For example, when a tree has been pollarded (cut repeatedly through part or all of its life), it can affect the rate at which the tree grows. Other key features of ancient trees include the crown ‘growing downward’ with healthy low branches, stag-headedness; dead, antler-like branches extending beyond the crown, heart-rot fungi, sap runs or water pools, and rougher creviced bark. The more of these features a tree has, the more likely it is an ancient tree.

Two Ancient Oak Trees in Cothelstone Park.

Ancient trees are important for many reasons, and the older a tree becomes the more ecologically valuable it gets.

All the holes and crevices in ancient trees provide the perfect homes for thousands of species of plants, animals, and fungi. In the UK, approximately 1,700 invertebrate species use decaying wood at some point during their life cycles. Some fungi aids in the decomposition of wood, transports essential nutrients for the health and growth of trees, and ‘softens’ wood making it suitable for invertebrates. Birds such as owls, kestrels, and marsh tits nest inside tree cavities, and all 17 of the UK’s bat species are thought to use trees to nest. One oak tree surveyed at Alfoxton Park (pictured below), which is believed to be up to 800 years old, had 6 notable species of lichen, including 5 rare species.

Ancient oak tree at Alfoxton Park.

More extensive areas with many old and aging trees are especially valuable. Collectively they have a far greater variety of habitats for wildlife and are often colonized by rare species of invertebrates, fungi, and lichen. These specialists have a much greater chance of survival if there are other trees nearby that can develop a suitable habitat for them to move to in the future. The more of these trees there are, the greater the potential for the rarest species to be present. This means it is important to continue planting trees in areas that already have ancient trees, so that there are new generations of veteran and ancient trees following on. Leaving dead or dying wood in situ is also highly important to support even more specialist wildlife such as saproxylic invertebrates.

Gathering information on the ancient and veteran trees across the Quantock Hills will provide a much richer picture of the complex ecology and biodiversity of our landscape. If you know of or manage land that could have multiple old and interesting trees, we would love to investigate.

All our survey results go into the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory, a national project mapping the oldest and most important trees in the UK. We also have an archives project that will hopefully discover clues about historic land management through old estate record collections. All this contributing to a better understanding of the trees of the Quantocks.

Get Involved!

If you have any trees you would like us to survey,
please contact Jem Gibson, Wildlife Officer, at:
or if you would like to be involved as a volunteer,
please contact Jon Barrett, Community Engagement & Volunteering Officer, at: